FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000

Modern Kitchens

In postwar America, modern kitchens became a prominent symbol of the American way of life. The heart of the suburban, single-family home, kitchens were stocked with the latest processed foods and filled with electric labor-saving appliances. Suburban builders like William Levitt promoted and reinforced the kitchen’s significance, relocating it from the back to the front of the house and integrating it with the living and dining rooms. Popular magazines advertised kitchens as status symbols, while manufacturers encouraged consumers to transform their kitchens into showcases of progress.

 Julia Child’s real kitchen stands both in contrast to and in harmony with the sleek and modern ideal promoted for American suburban dwellers of the 1950s and ’60s. With her husband Paul, Julia Child designed and set up this kitchen in 1961. As a serious cook, author, and teacher, Julia had strong opinions about how her kitchen should be arranged. Its homey atmosphere, with simple, painted cabinetry and butcher-block countertops contrasts with the shiny surfaces pictured in kitchen brochures of the time. Yet her embrace of new appliances was very much in keeping with ideas of a “new and improved” kitchen.

View of Julia Child's kitchen

View of Julia Child's kitchen

“Built to Fit Your Wife,” 1953

“Built to Fit Your Wife,” 1953

Popular Science magazine portrayed the modern kitchen as a serious work space while reinforcing the traditional notion of the kitchen as a place for housewives. The article described a project at Cornell University that re-engineered the kitchen, setting up efficient work zones and spaces that would “fit the woman.”

Upgraded Kitchens, 1952

Upgraded Kitchens, 1952

Philomena Dougherty in her new, color-coordinated kitchen in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Stainless-steel kitchens, a standard feature of Levittown houses, were aesthetically appealing and signaled up-to-date living—a marker previously reserved for upper-class homes.

Courtesy of Rita Calzarette

Artwork for The Jetsons lunchbox, 1963

Artwork for The Jetsons lunchbox, 1963

Created for an Aladdin lunchbox, these illustrations feature the animated television sitcom The Jetsons. Wife and mother Jane is in charge of the cartoon family’s meals, which are programmed via punchcards, fed to a computer, and prepared by pushing a button. The scene pokes fun at futuristic utopias that promised instant meals and lives of leisure.

NMAH Archives Center AC0844-0000005

Souvenir from the Formica House, 1964

Souvenir from the Formica House, 1964

Visitors to the New York World’s Fair were dazzled by fanciful and impractical kitchen designs.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries